A Spot of Dirt

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Singapore’s transport minister resigned last week after being charged with corruption, an occurrence so unusual in the city-state that it hasn’t happened in decades, but now may damage its image of clean governance, the Financial Times reported.

Iswaran is the first minister in Singapore to be charged while in office. The country’s anti-corruption agency claimed he received bribes from a Malaysian real estate magnate, Ong Beng Seng.

While denying the allegations, Iswaran said last Tuesday he was stepping down because “it was the right thing to do,” citing the impact of the case on his family and name.

The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau looked at gifts the minister received from 2015 to 2022. They include tickets to soccer matches and musicals, as well as a hotel stay and business class flight to and from Doha. Iswaran was also invited to the Formula One Grand Prix in Singapore, for which he and Ong had worked together to make the island a fixture.

The kickbacks, the Bureau said, were to guarantee Ong the upper hand in contracts between his company Singapore GP Pte and the Singapore Tourism Board, and amounted to $285,770.

The scandals sent shockwaves throughout the city-state. The country entertains a culture of transparency and is currently ranked fifth in the world in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, CNN explained. Singaporean ministers are among the best-paid in the world, with a yearly salary of around $834,000 aimed at preventing corruption.

The last time a minister was accused of graft was in 1986. Teh Cheang Wan, infamous for his chewing gum ban, faced allegations of accepting bribes, but died before charges could be pressed.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) has made clean governance a key tenet of its rule, uninterrupted since the island’s independence from Malaysia in 1965. For Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, to question the PAP’s reputation is to question Singapore’s reputation.

Iswaran resignation comes as the PAP already faces a series of scandals and an election next year described as the most significant in a generation. Lee Hsien Loong, son of Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, will hand over to deputy Lawrence Wong before the 2025 election, ending the Lee dynasty’s four-decade rule.

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